How To Use Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill for Maximum Flavor

Food that’s grilled over a charcoal fire already has a huge advantage in the flavor department, but there are ways to make it taste even better. One of my favorite tricks is to add wood chips to the blaze beforehand, to flavor the smoke.

Because there are many different types of wood available for this purpose, this step allows grillers to experiment with a broad range of taste sensations. Here, we’ll explore how to use wood chips on a charcoal grill for optimum results.

Why Charcoal?

Although you can add wood chips to just about any grill, we prefer charcoal in most cases. Why? Because charcoal grills are inexpensive, easy to come by, and user-friendly—at least, once you’ve gotten the hang of them. Adding wood chips takes the smoke flavor to a new level, and requires very little effort.

Some charcoal grills will come equipped with a smoker box, which is used to hold the chips and direct the smoke into the cooking chamber. Even if you don’t have one of these, you can place the wood chips directly onto the charcoal for a similar effect.

Types of Wood Chips to Use for Smoking

There are several different types of wood used for this purpose. Some have a mild, sweet flavor, while others are more intense. We’ve outlined the most popular varieties in the table below.

Note: Don’t be tempted to use unfamiliar wood from branches that have dropped in your backyard. First of all, it could be tainted with poison ivy or chemicals that you don’t know about. Second, soft woods—such as pine—are not suitable for smoking, as they’ll spark and flare up as they burn, leaving behind a sooty residue.

It’s best to purchase wood chips that are designated specifically for cooking. They’re easy to find and generally affordable. Plus, you’ll know exactly what type of wood you’re getting, allowing you to customize the flavor.

TypeCherryAppleAlderPeach or PearMapleOakHickoryPecanMesquite
Flavor ProfileMild, fruityMellowSweet, mildSweet, woodsySlightly smoky, sweetSmokySavory, bacon-likeSavory yet mildBold, very smoky
Best Withpoultry, porkpoultry, seafood, cheesefishpoultry, pork, game birdspoultry, vegetables, hambeef, pork, fish, wild gamepork, poultry, beef, cheesepork, beef, poultry, wild gamebeef, lamb

Tip: You can also experiment with different combinations of wood. For example, cherry is a great all-purpose wood that adds lovely undertones to stronger flavors like maple and oak. On a related note, don’t be tempted to overdo it with the stronger woods like hickory and mesquite—they’ll impart a bitter taste to your food when used in excess.

What’s the difference between wood chips and pellets?

Pellets are made of compressed hardwood that has been heated and dried, then formed into small cylinders. While they have a slow burn rate, they yield consistently high temperatures, which makes them a popular choice for smoking.

A wood chip, by contrast, is merely a smaller piece of hardwood that’s been seasoned to reduce the moisture level. They burn more quickly than pellets, but deliver a high volume of smoke.

You might also come across wood chunks, which are essentially larger versions of pellets. These come in handy if you’re cooking a pork butt or brisket, or any large cut of meat that requires a long tenure in the smoker.

How much wood will I need?

If you’re using a low-and-slow cooking application, you should add a fresh handful (or packet) of chips every half hour or so to maintain the best flavor. If you’re just grilling a batch of chicken wings or sausages, a few handfuls should be all you’ll need. These should keep the smoke flavor going for about an hour.

To Soak or Not to Soak

Should you soak the wood chips before putting them on the grill? This is a topic that’s been fiercely debated in the grilling community.

We oppose the soaking practice for several reasons. First of all, it doesn’t seem to do any good. It would take hours for the water to penetrate the wood far enough to make any difference, and most people don’t soak the chips for longer than a few hours. That eliminates the need to do it in the first place.

Second, the chips are treated beforehand to eliminate moisture. So why would you want to add more? The wood will still begin to smoke eventually—it will just take longer to do so. Even if the chips have absorbed enough water to make a difference, they’ll cool off your coals and create steam rather than smoke.

If you’re worried about your wood chips catching on fire and burning up before they can flavor the food, try using the foil packet method outlined below. The foil will act as a barrier between the coals and the wood, allowing them to burn more slowly while still delivering that intense smoke flavor.

How To Use Wood Chips on a Charcoal Grill

1. Make the foil packets.

This step is optional, but we prefer it for aesthetic and practical reasons. Wrap a handful of wood chips in a double layer of aluminum foil. Use a long skewer to poke several small holes in the packet, then set it aside until ready to cook. You might want to make several of these packets, depending on the size of your grill and how many people you’ll be serving.

2. Light the fire.

First of all, you’ll need to light the coals using either a chimney starter or lighter fluid. We don’t recommend using match-light briquettes, as the chemicals used in their composition can leach into the food during cooking.

To use a chimney starter, roll up a few sheets of newspaper into tight ring shapes. Place the paper in the bottom of the chimney, then fill the chimney with charcoal. Light the coals using a stick lighter and wait for them to ash over. There may be some smoke initially, but this will die off as the moisture in the briquettes evaporates. Once the coals are hot, carefully pour them into the cooking chamber using heatproof gloves.

Alternatively, you can place the coals directly in the cooking chamber, then add the recommended quantity of lighter fluid. Torch the coals immediately with a stick lighter and wait for them to heat up and ash over.

3. If your charcoal grill has a smoker box, the process is a cinch.

Simply add the wood chips to the box, then place the box over the coals. When the smoke begins to pour out, you’re ready to start cooking.

Grills that don’t have a smoker box will require a different method. For fast cooking applications, the foil packets should be placed directly beneath the ingredients. Long and slow methods require indirect heat, so the packet should be situated off to one side, atop the hottest portion of the coals.

If you’re not using packets, carefully place the wood chips directly on the coals before replacing the cooking grates. Bear in mind that you’ll probably have to replace them more often without the foil barrier to slow their combustion.

Take a look at this handy tutorial for a visual guide on burning wood chips using a charcoal grill.

4. Add the food to the cooking grates as you normally would.

Be sure to keep the lid closed as much as possible to allow the smoke to permeate the cooking chamber.

In Conclusion

Like any worthwhile pastime, creating good barbecue takes practice. If you decide to experiment with wood chips on a charcoal grill, we would recommend starting small.

Grill up a few pork chops or chicken breasts with a handful of cherry wood chips. Pay attention to the smoke output and how it affects the flavor of your meal. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can move on to bolder combinations and more complex cooking techniques—and impress the rest of the household in the process.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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